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Trip Report Florence in December: Live Trip Reporting

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My work schedule cleared on short notice, so my wife and I decided to spend a week in Florence in December to celebrate our anniversay. We've been to Florence twice before, the first time years ago for a few days in September when we were first married, then in more recently for a day during a June trip to Italy with our children which, unfortunately, coincided with 100 degree temperatures and a major museum strike of all museums in the city. Thus we are familiar with Florence's layout and its main attractions, but we've wanted to return at some point for a more leisurely, in-depth exploration of the city in cooler weather when the tourist hordes are gone. This finally is our opportunity. This will be a cursory report as I go; perhaps I will post a more detailed report later.

Sun. Dec. 5, Morning:

Our flight arrives at Milan Malpensa at 8:30 a.m., 30 minutes late. Since we didn’t check bags, we’re through customs in minutes. We look for but do not find a Trenitalia desk in the main terminal. Although there is a 12:21 p.m. train from Malpensa itself to Florence, we don’t want to wait that long to get going, so we buy bus tickets — the Malpensa Shuttle (7.50 Euros apiece) — directly to Milano Centrale train station, hoping to catch the the 10:15 a.m. Trenitalia AV Frecciarosa train (1 hour, 45 minutes trip) to Florence. Even though we only had to wait five minutes after boarding the bus before it departed, a stop at a second terminal and a 50 minute ride to the train station deposit us there just a little too late, about 10:20. However, the Florence trains leave regularly at 15 after the hour, so we buy tickets for the next one at 11:15. Surprisingly, second class at 52E per ticket is sold out, so we pay 70E per first class ticket, board the train, and locate our reserved seats 63 and 64 in car 1 ("Carrozza 001, Posti 63 & 64").

Sun. Dec. 5, Afternoon

Although we can’t compare first class to second, the train is very modern and clean. Our seats recline and are very comfortable. Even though our car is almost completely full, the overhead baggage space is ample and we're soon off on a smooth ride to Florence. The skies are overcast and the weather is chilly and damp, in the mid-40 degrees. As expected, the winter countryside is not as pretty as on our previous visits and patches of snow are visible in the fields as we head southeast from Milan. The smooth, gentle rocking of the train and jet lag combine to put us to sleep. After a short stop in Bologna we arrive, wait 10 minutes in the taxi line, and cab quickly deposits us a little before 1:30 at the Loggiato dei Serviti hotel, a former Servite convent located on the west side of Florence's famous colonnaded Piazza Santissima Annunziata. After unpacking, we get our second wind and we layer up to brave the chill and start exploring Firenze once more.

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    Thanks annhig. Okay -- still adjusting to night and day over here so in lieu of sleep here goes:

    Sun. Dec. 5, Evening

    As we step into the Piazza, the huge Duomo looms imposingly to our right — a straight shot, 5 minute walk down the Via dei Servi. We circle The Baptistery and rexamine its replicas of Ghiberti’s famous doors once more. We then head south down the Via dei Calzaiuoli — mobbed now not with tourists but with local Christmas shoppers. The skies begin to darken a little after four and are completely dark by 5:15, but the whole central area is awash in Natale lights strung across the streets and avenues — each having its own unique pattern. We walk to the Arno and cross the Ponte Vecchio,which is ablaze with light.

    Dinner: Hungry and a little tired, we stop across from the Palazzo Pitti at a nameless tavola calda for a slices of pizza, some light pasta, and a mixed salad. The total is 25E and, except for getting small cups of coffee crunch and stracciatella gelato at Perche No! on our way back to the hotel, we’re done for the evening. Our working plan is to take a morning walking tour of the city tomorrow with ArtViva, followed by museum visits to the Uffizzi on Tuesday morning and the Accademia on Tuesday afternoon.

    Mon. Dec. 5, Morning

    We were given a room on the second floor (third story) with a great view of the Piazza Santissima Annuziata. Although my wife slept like a log, the sporadic traffic noise, occasional shouting, and (at one point) mysterious sound of dragging metal in the square woke me up off and on throughout the night. Plus, the wireless internet isn’t working in the room as advertised. However, after a filling complimentary breakfast downstairs in the hotel, the on-duty manager graciously moves us one floor up to a room at the back of the building. The new room has a nice view of pine trees in a courtyard and the dark high hills to the north of Florence. Even better, it seems quiet and the wi-fi works. Now we’re off in the cold and a light rain for a 9:15 3-hour morning walking tour with ArtViva.

    At Art Viva, we learn -- to our dismay -- the museum workers will be on strike (once again) on Tuesday and Wednesday is a national holiday, so we’ll have to rearrange our plans to visit the Uffizzi and Accademia until later in the week. Since we’re spending more than one day in Florence on this trip, hopefully that will still work out. The tour is both thorough and interesting, even though it rains off an on throughout the morning. Our guide gives each of us a small transmitter and earpiece and speaks into a wireless microphone as he leads us to the Palazzo Strozzi (ostentatious mansion/palace of the Renaissance-era Strozzi family), Orsanmichele (former grain market/granary turned church), Santa Trinita church with its well preserved Ghirlandaio frescoes, various side streets through the town center, to the Ponte Vecchio bridge, then Piazza dei Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio (magnificent town hall with the high tower) where we break for coffee and hot chocolate. Good idea because the cold and damp is starting to chill me to the bone. Our tour resumes in the square and we conclude inside the massive Duomo.

    Lunch: Nerbone is a classic food both inside the Mercato Centrale building near San Lorenzo church, the mercato is more or less Florence’s version of Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. We eat the house speciality “boiled beef” sandwiches with extra spice — a good antidote for the outside temperature — and a delicious and ample side of warm ground spinach. We sit with a German couple from Majorca who graciously offer us some of their red wine. They claim they own a vineyard on the island and that Nerbone’s house red is an excellent value. I’m in no position to dispute that so just imbibe and enjoy.

    Mon. Dec. 5, Afternoon

    Cold and still a little jet-lagged, we head to the hotel. A hot shower to warm up and deep nap is what the doctor ordered, but by the time we get our engines going again, it’s growing dark. Since it’s started to rain again, the closest quality restaurant in our area appears to be Ristorante Accademia, just a few blocks away at Piazza San Marco 8. We arrive at 6:45 p.m. and though it’s reputed to be a popular restaurant, it is less than half full at that early hour. We’re ready for some food and vino.

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    I was in Firenze last November.....great time as the "tourist" season is sorta slow and you don't have much of the maddening crowds ...also it is a GREAT time to shop around there if you are so inclined, you can find some great deals . We got some excellent leather goods..belts..briefcases..etc. at half or more off....and I scored a most excellent and high quality pair of shoes for bargain basement price. Everytime I wear them here I am reminded of my visits to Italy and they fit like a glove.

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    If the Bronzino exhibition is still on at the Palazzo Strozzi, it's well worth seeing, a better use of time than the revered Davide to my mind. And the monk's cells with Fra Angelico frescos in P.San Marco are wonderful (only open in the mornings.)

    Not far from your hotel, in fact on Via Tavolini where you ate ice cream, is Paoli - very traditional with delicious pappa pomodoro.

    You can tell that I am enjoying your report!

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    And, if it isn't in your plan, the fresco, "Procession of the Magi", in the chapel at the Pallazo Medici-Riccardi has been exquisitely restored and is well worth seeing. It is open every day but Wednesday.

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    As people are adding suggestions, I'll pitch the Museo Opificio delle Pietre Dure which is very near your hotel. If you've visited the Medici Chapels, you've seen the beautiful mosaics of stone and precious gems. The best examples of this inlay process (perhaps anywhere in the world) are in the Opificio.

    I second the suggestion of the Procession of the Magi. Also in Palazzo Medici-Riccardi are two public rooms. The Riccardi Galleria is a medium-sized salon with beautifully painted ceiling and walls. The Room of the Four Seasons is a meeting room used by the provincial government. There are lovely tapestries covering the walls. On the ground floor of the palazzo is exhibition space currently displaying the photography of Carlo Fei.

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    Thanks for all your great suggestions. we'll try to work in as much as we can.

    Tues. Dec. 6, Morning

    After breakfast at the hotel, we head out into the morning rush. It’s another overcast day, but it’s markedly warmer, probably in the mid-50s with no wind. It’s so mild in fact that I can doff my jacket and am comfortable simply in a long sleeve shirt. Our goal is to stroll leisurely through central Florence so my wife can shop as we slowly make our way south to cross the Arno River to see the famous frescoes at Branccaci Chapel at St. Maria del Carmine.

    A small confession: we enjoy art very much, but in moderate doses. We’ve learned from previous experience how easy for us it is in Europe to overdose on cathedrals, paintings, and ancient ruins and that our enjoyment is proportional to how much time we can invest before a trip in learning in detail about what we can see. Without much time to read up for this trip, it occurred to me to check out what The Teaching Company had to offer on Renaissance artists. Selected lectures by Smithsonian Prof. William Kloss from his “History of European Art” and “Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance” series were particularly informative and whetted our appetite to see the Brancacci Chapel since we had missed it on previous trips.

    I read we needed reservations for viewing the chapel but those could be obtained the same day, especially in the off season. But of course as luck would have it I forgot to check on open days and hours. Shouldn’t be a problem because most other churches seem open today. When we arrive at the church we’re allowed in, but it’s completely dark inside and a monk tells us the chapel is closed on Tuesday. Damn, note to self about double checking next time; now for Plan B.

    In the neighborhood is a travel service, Absolute Italy, that some friends have recommended highly. We’re interested in scheduling a day trip outside Florence one day this week, and Laura and Eliza there help us decide on a guided excursion in the Chianti wine country on Friday, when the weather should be better. They also graciously volunteer to make Brancacci Chapel reservations for us on Wednesday or Thursday and recommend that we have lunch at the international Christmas fair going on right now in Piazza Santa Croce. Since we wanted to see Santa Croce church anyway at some point on the trip, this sounds like a good idea.

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    MRand, thank you for giving us your real time account from Florence under cloudy skies. I agree that one can "overdose" on religious art. After 2 weeks in Rome years back, I could not look at another martyr in his death agony.
    Maybe I missed it, but how is Florence dressed for the Christmas holidays?
    Enjoying your account....

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    Thanks for all the positive comments.

    latedaytraveler - turns out that as we hoped Florence is very festive for the holidays. Many of the streets have strands of lights spanning the way and each seems to have its own design or pattern. At night, the yellow glow coming from many stores only multiplies to the effect. Add to that the tall Christmas trees the city or some benefactor has placed at the Duomo, our Piazza della Santissima Annuziata, Piazza Santa Croce, and high up above the city at Piazzale Michelangelo and you've got a warm holiday vibe most major cities would be pleased to have.

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    MRand, it must be truly beautiful in Florence just now. So different from hot and crowded conditions. Did you get to the Santa Croce Fair? And, did you enjoy the church? (Daft question.)

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    Tues., Dec. 6, Afternoon

    We walk to Piazza Santa Croce where the international fair is in full swing. We see crafts and food booths from Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, and Hungary and I’m sure many more countries are represented. We settle for a cheap lunch (17E for the two of us) of sausage and sauerkraut. Fortified, we tackle the many highlights of Santa Croce church including the tombs of Michelangelo, Dante, Gallileo, Ghiberti, and other Italian heroes, which have led some to call it the "Westminster Abbey of Italy." Impressive, sure, but the art here on the walls in all the chapels and sacristies is simply getting overwhelming, and like eating too much icing on a cake, we’re starting to get art overload.

    The simplicity but undeniable architectural attractiveness of Pazzi Chapel and its courtyard by Brunelleschi, which is affixed to the south side of Santa Croce, is a peaceful Spartan contrast to the main church. All these rich Florentines buying chapels for themselves and their families 500 years ago sometimes still pay remarkable benefits for us 500 years later. I'm not by any means suggesting that anyone should bypass Santa Croce. It's a fascinating place, but it's overflowing with riches so you've got to pick your shots there.

    The Santa Croce museum shows devastating effects of the massive 1966 flood of the Arno River in Florence that destroyed many art treasures at Santa Croce, the Uffizi, and other places in the city. I remember this on the news as a young kid at the time, even though at that time I had never heard of Florence or why it had all these art treasures. The mountains east of Florence had received torrential rains for several days beforehand and a dam above the city threatened to burst in the night. Our guide told us yesterday that Italian officials, in an effort to avoid massive panic and potential fatalities, decided not to risk the dam bursting or to warn the city of the impending flood and opened the gates. This led to irreplaceable losses of art in the city but minimal loss of life.

    But I digress. My wife is dying to see the Leather School run by the monks at Santa Croce: located behind the main church. You can watch the monks and their apprentices ply their trade which is interesting, but soon I look for and find a spare bench as I continue to shake off jet lag while my wife shoulders the heavy lifting of looking for Christmas gifts. While she doesn’t find what she wants there, she’s successful in the leather shops across the street on Via di San Giuseppe.

    Tuesday, Dec. 6, Evening

    By now it’s dark and we’re ready for dinner, but we’ve still got and hour or two to kill before most of the restaurants open around 7 p.m. Looking around for a time filler before dinner, we realized the Bronzino exhibit at Palazzo Strozzi is open until 8. The exhibit has been skillfully marketed with huge posters on the sides of building all over town providing intriguing glimpses of Bronzino's photographic-quality 16th century portraits of the Medici clan, so we’re game.

    Tarquin, you are exactly right, the Bronzino exhibit is well worth seeing — every bit as good as advertised. His best works have been assembled from museums across Italy and around the world in an exhibit that can easily be appreciated in an hour, more or less. I’ll be honest — maybe I remember hearing of Bronzino before this trip, or maybe not — but his portraits from the 1500s Florence are stunningly realistic. The subjects of his pictures, both adults and children, look surprisingly modern — like real people instead of the more idealized figures in most painting of the era. Speaking from a guy’s perspective, I’ve got to admit these Bronzino women would be attractive even by the exacting standards of today’s reality show culture.

    Now we’ve really worked up an appetite, so we go to Trattoria “Le Mossacce,” just a little south and east of the Duomo at Via del Proconsolo, 55. It’s a small space with just a few large wooden tables shared by the patrons and a loud open air kitchen right on top of the diners. We know we’ve done well when locals start pouring in just a few minutes later. It looks like the local neighborhood hangout for families and workers on a budget.

    My wife starts off with minestrone and I have the heavier ribollita, the thick local Tuscan soup of bread, beans, and black cabbage. Holy cow — would it cause cultural offense if I picked up my bowl and licked it clean? My wife says yes, so I resist the temptation, but she enjoys her soup equally well, which seems to be just a lighter version of what I ordered, sans the bread. Back home, we would have made a meal out of just the bread, olive oil, house red wine, and the soup. But hey, we’re on vacation in Italy, have walked several miles today, and have had a light lunch, so what the hell, right? My rich lasagna barely trumps her spaghetti in rich tomato sauce, and we enjoy being the conspicuous foreigners in a place otherwise filled with Italians who occasionally glance at us with amused expressions. And jeez, to think by simply dressing in dark colors we thought we would blend in locals — oh well. We’re tired and full so back to the hotel for (hopefully) a good night’s sleep.

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    Impressive, sure, but the art here on the walls in all the chapels and sacristies is simply getting overwhelming, and like eating too much icing on a cake, we’re starting to get art overload.>>

    exactly, MRand. this has regularly happened to me on visits to the "big three" of Italy, and I've never tried to do more than one at a time. how people who do them all together, one after another, manage to remember what they saw where escapes me.

    loving your report, BTW.

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    Wed., Dec. 8, Morning

    We’re having a tough time shaking the jet lag. Just realized the dates on this report are off by a day. After a restless night, we end up sleeping in until 10:30, missing breakfast at the hotel and losing most of the morning. Turns out this isn’t as big a deal as it seems at first, because there’s a steady light rain falling from the gray skies outside and the mild temperatures and humidity quickly make us steamy hot in our rain jackets.

    It’s also an Italian state holiday — the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception — so despite the rain, the streets are crowded with holiday shoppers. Plus, overnight a marketplace has materialized right in front of hour hotel in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, now filled with tents of locals selling their foodstuffs and holiday goods. Deploying our umbrellas, we stroll around the stalls until the rain drives us across the street under the colonnade of the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata. We decide to use the time to scope out this church that we haven’t seen even though it’s less than a stone’s throw from our hotel entrance.

    As we enter we’re stunned both by the basilica's ornate interior and to see it filled to overflowing with worshippers. Over the years, we’ve just gotten used to seeing a handful of attendees at the few religious services we’ve observed in Europe. There’s beautiful music being played including Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and other clearly recognizable hymns. This surprises me a little because I always thought of Bach as a Protestant — a Lutheran — and didn’t realize his music would be played in a Roman Catholic basilica. We’d like to stay and listen, but feel like we’re intruding so we step out into the rain and work our way back to the center city.

    Our ultimate destination, once again, is the elusive Branccaci Chapel. This time, however, the extremely helpful Elisa at Accent Italy has e-mailed us that she has made us reservations at the chapel at 2:00 p.m., so seeing the Massacio frescoes there should be a sure bet this time.

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    MRand, when you get home, you might enjoy reading "Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces" by Robert Clark. It's a well-written account of the 1966 flood and the efforts to save the art. FYI, the Santa Croce area experienced most of the highest water measurements.

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    Mrand, I am so enjoying your trip report and I smiled regarding your reaction to the Ribollita Soup, I so understand! It is beyond description good and I am so hungry just thinking about it. I hope you have a chance to have some more before you leave Florence.

    Just a gentle comment for those who will be visiting Florence. Dante is not buried in Florence although yes there is a tomb there for him. Dante is buried in Ravenna.

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    Lunch: We quickly split a tomato and cheese sandwich we buy at a street stand as we walk our way in the rain across town to see the Brancacci Chapel frescoes.

    Wed., Dec. 8, Afternoon

    The light rain turns harder as we approach the chapel, and it is beginning to feel colder again. We’re admitted with our 2:00 p.m. reservation into the Carmelites' beautiful cloistered courtyard with tall pine trees. There’s a nice museum bookstore at the church where we pick up our tickets, but before being allowed to see the chapel we’re (somewhat reluctantly) ushered to and seated in a small viewing room for a 40-minute orientation video. We are given headsets that can be dialed to English narration and while we wait the darkness and sound of water pouring off the roof outside almost put me to sleep. Soon the video starts and we are both pleasantly surprised with how well done and informative the presentation is, demonstrating not only creative process involved in the frescoes but providing us with fascinating background on the building of the church and the Carmelite order that sponsors it. We both believe this is one of the best introductory visual presentations we’ve ever seen for a work of art or historical site.

    Now it’s time to enter the church — completely dark except for the chapel itself, which is brightly illuminated. It does not disappoint. The colors in real life are much more stunning than anything I’ve seen in pictures of the chapel beforehand. The chapel walls feature 12 separate frescoes — 6 on each side — several which were started by Masolino and his young apprentice Massacio, who took over when his master left for a foreign commission. Masaccio himself painted 5 of the most colorful and dramatic frescoes, while the rest were finished much later by Filippino Lippi. To us, Massacio’s are clearly the most vivid and expressive. This is one time I really believe that my pre-trip preparation (and the video we’ve just seen) have paid off significantly in my enjoyment of the art. Not quite sure how we missed the Brancacci Chapel on our first trip to Florence years ago — or maybe we did see it then, but didn’t really appreciate what we were looking at and have forgotten about it until now.

    It’s still raining outside, so we cross back over the Arno on Ponte della Carraia, one of the Florence bridges Hitler ordered destroyed by withdrawing Nazi troops late in World War II. Apparently Hitler ordered all the Florence bridges blown up except the Ponte Vecchio, which he’d personally been shown by Mussolini in a pre-war visit to Florence. We stop to dry out a little at the Westin Excelsior, a beautiful hotel along the river.

    Despite the weather, my wife wants to brave the outdoor market stalls adjacent to the Basilica of San Lorenzo. I retreat to a covered area at nearby Trattoria Za-za to drink some vino rosso and bruschetta, check with our kids, and get the news from home. We have a friend who’s recommended that we see the Four Seasons Florence hotel and grounds (and we have a mutual friend who works for the Four Seasons company). The rain is finally lightening up, so the walk isn’t bad and we enjoy seeing the hotel (another former convent — a little nicer than the one we’re staying in), having another glass of wine there, and strolling around the hotel’s beautiful “backyard” — the 11 acres that are the Giardino della Gherardesca.

    Wed., Dec. 8, Evening

    Dinner: We’re always ready to eat on the early side compared to the Italians, so we’re often killing a little time until the restaurants open for dinner at 7 or 7:30. Since it’s not too far of a walk to the Santa Croce neighborhood on the east side of the center city, we decide to check out Trattoria Cibreo that we’ve heard a lot about. There are actually three Cibreos — the really expensive ristorante, the much more reasonably-priced trattoria next door (serving some of the same menu as the larger restaurant), and the caffe’/bar across the street. The trattoria is not quite open yet, so we cross the street to Cibreo’s fantastic caffe’— a small but cozy, not too crowded bar with an interesting lively crowd where we have a few appetizers and some wine to take the edge off our hunger.

    At the small but very nicely furnished trattoria (which proudly does not serve either pasta or coffee), we again have a mix of dinner “companions.” The table to our left apparently is a mixed Italian-American family whose young — really young — children amaze us by occasionally breaking their perfect English conversation with their parents to speak what sounds like perfect Italian when conversing with the waiters. At the table to our right, the waiters seat two middle-aged German women at a small table with the two young Korean men who’ve already started their dinner. After 10 or so awkward minutes, the four are carrying on an animated conversation in ENGLISH. My wife and I can only envy these diners’ language skills.

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    What a lovely report! I'm taking notes as it goes along -- will be in Florence once again on the 26th -- after 30 years! (Wow, I can't believe that much time has gone by since I first fell in love with that beautiful city....)

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    Thurs., Dec. 9, Morning

    Even though my wife and I visited the Ufizzi and the Accademia on our first visit to Florence, that was over 25 years ago. My recollection is that at the time, several major rooms were closed and Boticelli’s masterpieces were on loan or being restored. When we returned for a day with our daughter and sons several years ago, both museums were closed by a strike.

    This time we decide to do see them in a more structured way with a guide from ArtViva. We were planning to see the museums on Tuesday, but another strike closed them then. Fortunately this morning we set out in the first good weather of the week — colder but clearing to blue skies — and meet our guide, Sarah, at 9:15. She’s an American expatriate who came to Florence as a graduate student to study art, married an Italian, and stayed ever since. I’m sure this story has been played out in Florence many times.

    Our small group includes only a young Singaporean family of five and one other couple. Turns out the father from Singapore previously has been the South Asian representative of a company based in our hometown and we know his former boss, who was president of the company before it was acquired in the mid-2000s. Sometimes the "society of travelers" can be an amazingly small world.

    We learn that Sarah will be our guide both for the morning at the Uffizi and the early afternoon at the Accademia. This turns out to be a very good thing, because she’s one of the most knowledgeable, enthusiastic guides we’ve ever had. Using highlights of the Uffizi collection as her outline, she takes us on a two-hour visual tour of Western art from the late Middle Ages through the late Renaissance. The Uffizi is a heck of a lab for this teacher. Of course her presentation describes in detail works by art superstars Giotto, Duccio, Boticelli (including "Primavera" and "The Birth of Venus" we missed on our first trip), Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo and others, as well as a brief history of the Medici family who were such incredible patrons of the arts in Florence during the Renaissance, and the Uffizi building itself.

    We realize that guided tours of museums are not everyone’s cup of tea or always in other travelers’ budgets. (ArtViva offers a combined three-in-one price of 94 Euros per person for the walking tour of the city we took on Monday morning and the strike-delayed Uffizi and Accademia tours we are taking today. I think this is a pretty good deal and probably less expensive than other very good companies like Context Rome, which also has a Context Florence branch.) We also like wandering through museums at our leisure, focusing on those works that catch our eye. However, for massive collections like the Uffizi, and especially traveling with our kids in their adolescent years, we’ve come to really enjoy having guides to lead us — especially ones as good as Sarah. We’re amazed that the two younger children of the family from Singapore are so quietly attentive during the tour. I can only shudder to think how ours would have lasted for two hours at their age; we think it must be a combination of their discipline, fluency in English, and Sarah’s ability to engage all of us.

    Lunch: After we’re through looking at the art, my wife and I split a panini in the Uffizi’s fourth-floor café and enjoying a sweeping view of Florence from the café’s terrace. The weather is really turning out to be spectacular and we hope it holds out for the rest of the trip.

    Thurs. Dec. 9, Afternoon

    We meet Sarah again at 1:30 for our afternoon visit to the Accademia and Michelangelo’s David. We pepper her with questions she capably answers as we walk through the city center. We thought she was engaging at the Uffizi, but she’s really on her game at the Accademia. Michelangelo must be a particular interest for her because she walks us through the details of his life and development as a young artist, a period that culminated in his gigantic white sculpture of David that astonished Florentines when they first saw it in the 1500s and continues to amaze us even today, years after we saw it on our first visit to the city.

    Sarah points out some of the ambiguities in the statue that we hadn’t noticed before, such as the impression of David’s stare that appears to change from a confident “bring it on Goliath” when you first see it in profile to a more uncertain gaze when you move around to see the face head on. We’re really disappointed our children missed this on that strike day during our previous Italy trip; it’ll just have to be incentive for them to return someday.

    The Accademia tour is shorter than the one at the Uffizi, so despite the early nightfall in December, we’ve still got some daylight to enjoy the great weather. Since we’ve walked everywhere in Florence up to now, we decide to take a taxi back across the river and up to the Piazzale Michelangelo to catch the sunset (12 Euros).

    We make it to the plaza there without about 30 minutes to spare. The whole city is bathed in late afternoon golden light and vivid purple clouds to the west are lined with silver and gold reflections. It’s a spectacular end to a very enjoyable day, but there’s another unexpected treat in store for us. Based on suggestions we’ve seen in this forum, we hike a little further up to the top of the hill that is crowned by the Benedictine San Minitao del Monte church and monastery.

    Now it’s dark, but the courtyard of San Minitao provides another panoramic view of the city, now lit up with thousands of yellow lights. A tall Christmas tree on the Piazzale Michelangelo below us also twinkles with hundreds of tiny white blinking lights. A real chill has now set in, so we go inside the church that is lit only by candles. Though smaller and far less decorated than most other churches in Florence, we are impressed with the simplicity of its art and design. While we’re there at 5:30, the Benedictine monks begin their Gregorian plainsong chants, adding a haunting quality to the moment.

    Thurs., Dec. 10, Evening

    Dinner: We leave the church and walk back down to the Piazzale Michelangelo and then down its switchbacks to the river level. As we stroll once again alongside the river Arno, brightly illuminated all the way down to the Ponte Vecchio, we decide to follow our guide Sarah’s dinner recommendation at La Ghiotta. It's a small trattoria in the nearby Santa Croce neighborhood that she says is rarely frequented by tourists. As has been our custom, we arrive a few minutes before the restaurant has opened so we return to our favorite nearby Cibreo bar for before-diner drinks and snacks.

    Even after it opens, we're among the first to arrive at La Ghiotta, which has none of the interesting décor or warm atmosphere of Trattoria Cibreo, but we quickly understand why Sarah has recommended it. Within 30 minutes the placed is filled with locals and the food is simply fantastic, one of our best meals of the trip so far. We split a wonderful caprese salad, my wife has pasta with meat sauce, and I have a primi patti of spinach ravioli and then a second course of whitefish is some sort of fantastic thick, chunky tomato sauce. It’s just flat expensive to eat out at most “sit down” restaurants in Florence, but the price of this meal and the one we had at La Mossacce on Tuesday evening are the most reasonable on the trip. Moreover, the food at both places is every bit as good as the more expensive restaurants. Since we’re only going to be in Florence for six days, we want to sample as many different places as possible, but if we were going to be here any longer, I’d be content to alternate dinners between La Mossacce and La Ghiotta, trying different things off of their menus.

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    Fri., Dec. 10, Morning and Afternoon

    Today is the day we’ve scheduled a guided tour in the Chianti region south between Florence and Siena. Based on friends’ recommendation, we’ve asked Laura Newman, who owns Accent Italy in Florence, to set this up. The excursion is expensive and is our splurge of the trip, but 30 years of marriage is something to celebrate, right? As much as we’ve enjoyed Florence, we’re still ready to do something different for a day and as you can tell, we like our wine, so a Chianti tour seems to fit the bill.

    When we traveled in Italy five years ago with our family, we did a half-day self guided tour of Chianti that was simply a drive in our rented minivan from San Gimignano to Castellina-in-Chianti for lunch and one very enjoyable stop at a small wine and olive oil producer named Concadoro. Due to the heat that day, we cut our trip short before reaching my goal of Greve-in-Chianti. It will be interesting to see what our driver Daniele has in store for us today.

    Daniele is very easy going but knowledgeable and we bombard him with questions from the get go. He’s an excellent, very calm driver and we’re making him earn every Euro to stay focused on the road while patiently answering our endless inquiries about Italy, its politics and history, the Chianti region, other Italian towns and cities, wine, comparisons with the United States, music, and much more. He takes us first, by coincidence, back to Castellina-in-Chianti for a walk through the pedestrian-only main street of this little village. We then wind south through the Tuscan hills to the Mazzei family winery at Fonterutoli, a medium-sized but state-of-the art winery south of Castellina on the Siena road. It’s another bright sunny day and we’re surprised at how green and attractive the Tuscan countryside still is in December, although clearly not as spectacular as our earlier trip in June.

    Daniele is a big soccer fan and tells us about intense Italian soccer rivalries such as those between the two Roman teams and between Florence and Siena. I ask him if we are near the site of Montaperti, the battle in the 1200s I've read about at which Florence’s efforts to dominate Siena were at least temporarily defeated. He laughs and says it is far away, but that Siena soccer fans often taunt their Florentine counterparts with a clever bumper sticker that reads “I was at Montaperti.”

    After an interesting personal tour of the winemaking operation at Fonterutoli, we sample four Mazzei wines — two made on the property there, one made in Sicily, and one made on the Maremma plains in southern Tuscany: Not surprisingly, these wines are delicious. My wife likes their Chianti Classico the best. While each of the four are different, with my undiscriminating palate, they all seem great to me. I even like their grappa that we sample at the end of the tasting.

    The wine helps us work up an appetite, so Daniele takes us to one of his favorite places in the area — Trattoria Oltre il Giardino. It’s located on a high hill in the small village of Panzano with a sweeping southern view of hills, vineyards, and olive groves. The deck is closed due to the cold and we can imagine how dramatic and colorful the vista would be in a warmer season.

    The owner/chef is a warm grandfatherly figure who speaks no English. Nevertheless, he is attentive in serving us a mouth-watering bread and the freshly-harvested “new” olive oil, an array of bruschetti, and yet another delicious version of ribolitta. With Daniele translating, the owner explains in detail the steps he takes in preparing this classic Tuscan dish. We could go around restaurants in Florence and the surrounding areas just sampling the ribolitta.

    Next Daniele drives us to Greve-in-Chianti, which he says can be overrun with tourists in the summer, but now in the quiet cold we have the entire trianglur-shaped village piazza to ourselves. Interesting to me in the center of the “square” is a tall statute of the Italian explorer Verrazano, who was born in Greve and later discovered the bay of New York. Unlike most explorers, who were born in port cities, Verrazano was born in Greve though it is well over a hundred miles from the sea.

    Now the late afternoon shadows are setting in and on our way back to Florence, we stop at the American Military Cemetery and Memorial, just five miles south of Florence. This is the resting place of over 4,400 American servicemen (and some women as well) who lost their lives in the northern Italian campaign in 1944-45. Their white crosses symmetrically dot an immaculately-maintained sloping green hillside in a narrow valley. A wall with the names of hundreds more who were missing in action and a sculpted statue of an angel and eagle in flight on a tall granite pedestal crown the top of the slope. We are the only visitors, and as the sun sets behind the high hills, “Taps” is played and echoes across the valley in the cold crystal clear air.

    As we leave, the retired serviceman who superintends the cemetery thanks us for coming and gives us brochures on this and other American military cemeteries in Europe. He talks to us with a Southern drawl, but immediately speaks fluent Italian to some local contractors who drop by. He has befriended Daniele on other visits, and as we leave Daniele tells us that both of them bemoan the little attention the cemetery now receives from locals and even most American tourists other than veterans and their families. This is well worth an hour or two visit if you have time while you’re in Florence, especially if you want a moving change of pace from painting and basilicas:

    This evening, on the recommendation of Daniele, we have another delicious (what else? but more expensive meal at La Cammilo in Oltrarno on Borgo San Jacopo 57, just east of the Ponte Santa Trinita bridge. Is there such thing as a bad meal in Italy? I’m sure someone somewhere has had one, but heck if I can think of one I’ve ever had.

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    Is there such thing as a bad meal in Italy? I’m sure someone somewhere has had one, but heck if I can think of one I’ve ever had.>>

    well according to a current thread on Venice, there's nothing but bad meals to be had there!

    i'm very glad that you had better luck. personally i prefer the food in rome to tuscany, but that may just be me. anyway I'm loving your trip report, so keep it coming!

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    Sat. Dec. 11, Morning

    We have to get back to Milan today because our flight home leaves from Malpensa airport tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m. Since Malpensa is about 30 miles to the northwest of the city, we’ll need an early start even staying overnight in Milan. We originally planned to leave Florence in the morning to spend the day in Milan, but there’s too much we still want to see. Since trains leave for Milan on the hour, we’ll shoot for the one at 2:00 p.m. Our only regret is that we haven’t taken time to hear any live music performance while in Florence (other than a street accordionist's version of “Jingle Bells”).

    My wife still wants to finish some Christmas shopping for friends and family and I want to see the Bargello and the world-class sculptures they have there (another thing I’ve missed on our previous visits). But first we both want to climb to the top of the Duomo. Fortunately, the weather is fabulous once again and the Duomo access opens at 8:30. The 400+ step hike to the top of Brunelleschi’s famous dome, which actually takes place in narrow stairways between two “inner” and “outer” domes, is well worth the effort.

    We are almost the only ones ascending and we even work up a little sweat despite the cold. We’re so glad we’re doing this now rather than with a slow-moving crowd on a hot summer’s day like the one we had in 2005. This time it’s the early morning sunlight that gives the city a warm glow when we reach the top. As bad as the weather was the first 3 days of the trip (which we fully anticipated), it’s been equally great for the last 3 days — plus beautiful Christmas decorations and no crowds at the sites! After taking dozens of pictures, we descend and my wife tackles her shopping while I go to the Bargello.

    The Bargello, which dates from medieval times and has served as a police headquarters and a prison, now houses what may be the greatest single sculpture collection in the world. Its central courtyard and wide outdoor stone staircase to the second level are striking in the bright sunlight. Recognizable sculptures by Michelangelo, Giambologna, Bevenuto Cellini, Lucca della Robbia, and many others dot the first floor rooms. On the second level, the huge two-story Renaissance terrace and halls are practically deserted this morning. In fact I have the grand Donatello room — with his famous David that preceded and is the polar opposite to Michelangelo’s David — all to myself for at least 15 or 20 minutes.

    Lunch: We meet back at the hotel and still have time for lunch before catching the train to Milan. We go to Trattoria Mario just a few blocks from our hotel. It is a chaotic, impossibly crowded working-class diner on the one-block long Via Rosini off Piazza del Mercato Centrale. We’re just in time before the lunch hour rush and are literally squeezed past the full tables of patrons to the last open table near the back. There are no menus, and we’re too far away to read the daily menu handwritten on paper and posted on the wall near the front of the restaurant. Our waitress, who speaks no English, senses what we’d like and brings my wife a fabulous steaming soup — like ribolitta but brothier, but not quite as liquid as a minestrone.

    An Italian woman and her teenage grandson are seated at the two other places at our small table. They are very friendly, but speak no English. I heard her direct her grandson to sit next to the “signora bella,” my wife. I agree. After some minutes, we finally gather that they are visiting from Rome. The waitress now brings me ravioli in an orange and green sauce — I don’t know what the sauce is, but it looks and tastes great. We wash it down with a quarter liter of tasty red wine and have thick-cut French fries for “dessert.” Total bill = 16 E. Wow. If I lived in Florence, I’d be tempted to eat here every day.

    Now it’s time to zip back to the hotel, grab our bags, and get to the train station for the 2 o’clock train to Milan. On the way, we walk past a small church and think we hear singing. We step inside the small chapel, and realize a small choral group is practicing unseen in the balcony above us. We’re in a hurry, but a wait a few minutes for them to resume. They proceed to sing, in Italian, the sweetest-sounding a capella version of “Away in a Manger” that we have ever heard.

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    I've just started and will look forward to finishing later. You had me hooked at "Milan". My niece lived there for 5 years, and dutiful Aunt Bokhara just had to visit several times. Love Northern Italy and will enjoy following you around Florence for a few days. Thanks for posting.

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    Thanks wayfinder45 and Bokhara2. Speaking of Milan -- after our brief detour to the church to listen to the Christmas songs (which, interestingly, turned out to be a Seventh Day Adventist Church in Florence), we barely made it to the train station for our 2 p.m. train to Milan. (This time, though, second class was available for 52E per ticket.) On Saturday afternoon, Milan seemed in gridlock. Our very nice English-speaking cab driver, who had the most high-tech, immaculate cab we’ve ever ridden in (fare: 12 Euros), patiently negotiated the traffic jams and back streets to our hotel near the city center — the Gran Duca di York.

    We were pleased with our choice there — it has an appealing exterior, small but clean modern rooms inside, and a much better bathroom than we had in Florence -- and it's only a couple minute walk to center-city Milan. We walked to the Milan Duomo, as you know the famous “wedding cake” cathedral that was completely scaffolded on our previous visit. On Saturday, it gleamed a creamy white color against the blue skies and fading sunlight. The huge square in front of the Duomo, and in fact the streets leading to the square, and Via Monte Napoleone were a complete madhouse, jammed with tens of thousands of Italians who we presume were both locals and out-of-towners Christmas shopping in the center of Italian chic. Just glad we didn't have to contend with those crowds in Florence.

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    Florence is one of my favotite cities and I have thoroughly enjoyed your trip report. You have brought the city and the area to life for me. We spent a week in late September of this year at a wonderful farmhouse near Greve and Oltre il Giardino in Panzano was one of our favorite restaurants. We had two delicious meals on the terrace. Thanks for your reminders of our wonderful trip.

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    MRand, I was so happy to read that you stopped at the American Cemetery outside Florence. Since our first visit to the Normandy beaches many years ago, my husband and I have made a point of visiting American cemeteries wherever we can in Europe. Not all of the interesting history in Europe is ancient, and these cemeteries are somber but beautiful monuments to the debts we owe the last few generations. Unfortunately, I wasn't surprised you were the only visitors; that has been our usual experience.

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    MRand, what a wonderful trip report of Florence, and your writing is just lovely! I'm going there in September for the first time, and now I'm so impatient to get there after reading this report. I especially like the tip to climb the Duomo first thing in the morning. I'm hoping I can cram in as much as possible in the 4 days I'll be there. Can't wait to read more!

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    Thanks mamcalice, Jean, hikrchick -- thank you for your kind comments. We had a fantastic time and we were sorry to leave Florence after only six days.

    hikrchick -- since several posters like you have commented they are going to Florence, for quicker reference I may go back and post an outline simply indicating the activity we did or restaurant where we dined throughout the trip, then link to the longer report if anyone is interested in reading the gory details. That may be a more useful for those like you contemplating a trip there soon.

    Also hikrchick -- run, don't walk, and purchase or check out from your local library The Teaching Company's "Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance," by Prof. William Kloss, a Smithsonian art historian:

    In my opinion, this is as tremendous a visual introduction to the history, architecture, and art of Florence as you can find anywhere. Since Prof. Kloss has a deliberate way of speaking, if you watch it on a laptop, you can speed up and condense a 30-minute lecture into 20 minutes. I didn't get to watch all the lectures before we left and we definitely missed some things I wished we had seen while we were there.

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    My fiance and I are going to Florence on Nov 30, 2013 and will be staying until Dec 8, 2013.
    Reading your daily report has given us a lot to look forward to. We are more excited now than ever. Thank you for your detailed reports.

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